Date: Saturday, August 26, 2023
Time: 3:30 PM (ET)
For the first time in its history, Mercer will usher in the college football season as part of the annual FCS Kickoff game. The Bears are hoping to (finally) get over the playoff hump this fall after coming very close each of the last two years. Their first test comes Saturday afternoon against a North Alabama squad looking to find its way after a very rough go of it in 2022.
At long last, FCS football is back.
The Quick Hits
Mercer has had a bad case of bridesmaids fever lately. The Bears have come tantalizingly close to a postseason berth in each of the last two seasons only to be left out in the cold despite posting seven wins both times. Now trying to navigate life with a new quarterback mixed in with returning special teams and offensive talent, Mercer is again filled with hope that this could be the year it happens.
On the other side, North Alabama is just hoping to find some sort of stability. After going 1-10 a season ago, the Lions seemingly have nowhere to trend but up. A fresh face is calling the shots now and that could be just what they need. UNA’s time in the FCS has been short so far and, although it hasn’t been the smoothest of transitions, they have plenty of DII success in their storied history.
Drew Cronic is looking forward to showcasing his #20-ranked Mercer team to the nation on Saturday. He said as much in a press conference earlier this week.
“[It’s] exciting to go play on ESPN, right out of the gates,” he said. “I like our kids, we’ve had a good camp but it’s probably about time for us to play somebody else. We’re tired of hitting each other.”
Cronic has been with the Bears since 2020 and has guided the program to at least five wins in each of his first three seasons at the helm. He has posted an overall 16-8 SoCon record since taking over as head coach.
While experience will be on Cronic’s side on Saturday, his counterpart... UNA’s Brent Dearmon... will be making his debut with the Lions. Dearmon comes over from Florida Atlantic where he served as the team’s offensive coordinator and QBs coach in 2022. He only has one prior season of head coaching experience back in 2018 with NAIA’s Bethel. He led the Royals to a 10-1 record that season and a trip to the playoffs.
Dearmon is now tasked with reinvigorating a North Alabama program that is searching for some footing at the DI level. He is the only first-year head coach in the newly minted United Athletic Conference (formerly WAC-ASUN) this season.
Mercer Offense vs. North Alabama Defense
The biggest change on this year’s Mercer squad will be at quarterback. Standout signal-caller Fred Taylor is now gone and someone else will be taking the reins. That someone is going to be sophomore Carter Peevy whose road to this spot has been anything but smooth. Peevy, who started for the Bears back in the COVID-altered spring season, earned himself SoCon Rookie of the Year honors. Peevy, though, lost his spot last year to Payton who transferred in from Coastal Carolina. Now he’s back and ready to make some noise.
Peevy played in just one game last season for the Bears, a 41-21 loss at Chattanooga. He threw for just 38 yards but that shouldn’t deter from the fact that he’s a very capable QB. During the 2020-21 season, Peevy threw for 1,318 yards and eight touchdowns while guiding the team to five wins.
Peevy will have himself a pair of weapons to work with on the outside in receivers Ty James and Devron Harper. The duo of seniors is one of the best in the country and both are able to break a game open on any given play. James led the SoCon with 1,105 receiving yards last fall while Harper averaged over 12 yards per catch and put up 10 receiving scores.
All that means that UNA’s secondary has one tall order sitting in front of them. Redshirt junior DB K.J. Trujillo will lead that unit and will look to improve on a campaign in which he nabbed an interception and broke up five passes. Trujillo and company, though, will have to be better than they were a season ago. The Lions surrendered nearly 250 passing yards per contest in ‘22.
While all that’s happening through the air, the Bears will turn to junior running back Al Wooten II. Wooten led the team with 495 yards on 130 carries last year and should be the feature back again this season with Austin Douglas and Brandon Marshall now gone.
Plugging the gaps is a jab that will fall upon senior linebacker Gallil Guillaume and junior defensive lineman Kam’ron Green. Green posted a team-high four sacks in 2022 and even blocked a kick. Guillaume authored 54 total tackles, good for third best on the Lions defense. 25 of those stops were solo.
North Alabama Offense vs. Mercer Defense
The Lions offense will be led by sophomore quarterback Noah Walters. Walters, who played in all 11 games as a freshman, threw for 2,149 yards and 19 touchdowns last fall. He completed passes at a 53% rate and averaged 195.4 yards per contest. As good as last year was, though, Walters will need to show growth if UNA is to outduel Mercer’s strong defense.
Receiver Takairee Kenebrew will see a lot of looks on the outside as he was the Lions’ leading pass catcher a season ago with 649 yards and eight scores. He will be complimented by sophomore wideouts Demarcus Lacey and Dakota Warfield, each of which appeared in 10 games for UNA in 2022.
The team also brought in a couple FBS transfers to help in the passing game as well. Former Auburn receiver J.J. Evans came in this offseason as did ex-Arkansas tight end Erin Outley.
The ground attack will have a greatly different look now that Walter Payton Award finalist running back Shunderrick Powell has transferred out. Expect guys like junior Parker Diggers to now see a heavily increased role.
The Bears, meanwhile, will field a talented defense led by linebacker Isaac Dowling and safety Lance Wise. Dowling is a tackling machine, putting up a team-best 99 total last year but his ability isn’t just limited to making stops. He also has two career interceptions, seven PBUs and three forced fumbles. He knows how to make plays all over the field, meaning Walters and company will need to be alert for his presence perhaps more than anyone else’s.
Wise will serve as the veteran presence on young Mercer secondary. With six career picks and 18 defended passes, Wise is one of the more effective safeties in the entire FCS. He has a nose for the ball and possesses stellar timing. UNA’s receiving corps will need to have an answer for Wise or it’ll be a long afternoon.
The Special Teams
One of the most dangerous return men in the country will be wearing orange this weekend. The aforementioned Devron Harper isn’t just a game buster on offense. He is as scary as they come when he gets the ball in his hands in the runback game as well. Harper has five career special teams touchdowns, two of which came a year ago via both the punt and kickoff. The best game plan for UNA here is to avoid getting the ball to #1 at all because he’s a scoring threat whenever and wherever.
The man in charge of keeping the ball away from Harper will be Lions junior Sam Contorno and if anyone can put it through the end zone it’s him. He averaged almost 60 yards per kick in 2022 and of his 57 total kickoffs, 21 were touchbacks. Contorno’s ability to prevent returns in this contest may end up being a pivotal facet of this game. On field goals,
Thomas Dowis will handle punting duties for UNA. A season ago the sophomore averaged nearly 40 yards per boot and only sent it in for a touchback four times (34 total punts). He too will be looking to avoid Harper.
Then there’s the kicking game for Mercer which will be chock-full of youngsters who may all get to see some time on Saturday. Three freshmen... Bryce Addison, Sully Croker and Reice Griffith... are all currently listed on the team’s roster. With Devin Folser gone, one of these guys will take over as the new kicker and this game may go a long way in deciding who it will be.
Mercer is flat out the better team here and they’re going to prove it from the jump. Expect the Bears to take an early lead and not relinquish it. Peevy will find his rhythm throwing and put up big numbers while Wooten will put the game on ice late. North Alabama will show glimpses of promise and catch the Bears sleeping a time or two but overall there’s just too much firepower to pick against Mercer. Dearmon will have to wait at least one more week to pick up his first DI win.
Score Prediction: Mercer: 27 - North Alabama: 14